I may have a defunct understanding of deontological ethics, but for some reason it seems to me that deontological ethics ultimately reduce to consequentialist theories. Take, for instance, Kant's Categorical Imperative, "act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law."

When it comes to defining the "maxim" that one can imagine as becoming "universal law", would it not be ultimately defined by an awareness of consequences? Murder, for example, is wrong according to Kant precisely because universalized it would create an unliveable society. But to assert this Kant has to assume the liveability of society as an end goal, no? From here, actions that have consequences that do not promote well-being (another way of saying liveability of society) are precisely the actions that would be prohibited by the Categorical Imperative, and so the Categorical Imperative would be based ultimately on a consideration of consequences. Basically, his rule sounds like Rule Utilitarianism.

Another way of formulating deontological ethics that I've heard is in terms of intentions rather than consequences. The moral status of actions, from this viewpoint, is defined by intentions and not consequences. But even here it seems to be that a moral evaluation of intentions still reduces to consequences. For instance, the intent to murder someone is wrong, but really only because that intention should naturally produce negative consequences (the intention to hurt someone is bad because its application would hurt someone).

So, what am I misunderstanding? I feel like morality must take consequences of actions into consideration at some point and it is clear to me that well-being must be inextricable from any moral theory.

  • 1
    Would Kant's categorical imperative be ultimately governed by consequences? No, Kant explicitly rejects such interpretation, it is only the intrinsic intent of action that matters to him, consequences be damned, and the willing is based on that. He proscribes lying to a murderer at the door to save the victim, for example. However, many utilitarians do use consequentialism only as a meta-theory, to justify practical rules that are then to be followed. In practice, this does not differ much from deontology, see rule utilitarianism.
    – Conifold
    Nov 30, 2019 at 0:22
  • I answer what is essentially the same question here. Dec 1, 2019 at 7:14
  • @Conifold - Would there be any different judgments using the categorical imperative vs. a form of rule utilitarianism that forbids rules that are overly context-dependent, e.g. the only options would be "everyone always tells the truth" and "everyone always lies", no intermediate option like "always tell the truth except when speaking with someone who plans to use the truth to help them commit particular types of crimes like murder or kidnapping?" Of course the definition of "overly context-dependent" may not be clear but IIRC that's also an ambiguity in what qualifies as a "universal maxim".
    – Hypnosifl
    Dec 30, 2019 at 23:37
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    @Hypnosifl I do not see how rule utilitarianism can forbid such rules. Your example can be reasonably expected to increase utility on average, which is what matters, not whether it is context dependent or not. However, rule utilitarianism would, presumably, exclude rules that are too complex to follow in practice. I do not think it is possible to exactly match deontological and utilitarian rules given that they ultimately answer to different goals, but the difference may not matter in most practical situations.
    – Conifold
    Dec 31, 2019 at 0:04
  • @Conifold - Rule utilitarianism could forbid it on the same basis that it forbids reasoning in terms of the consequences of every act, by appealing to human psychology, the idea that we need very clear-cut rules and that letting people judge everything on a case-by-case basis will in practice lead to people finding ways to rationalize their own interests, perhaps also that people are more likely to remember and follow more simple ethical maxims. I realize the goals are different, but judgment about proposed rules might not be for this type of rule utilitarianism vs. kant's approach.
    – Hypnosifl
    Dec 31, 2019 at 0:15

6 Answers 6


The question is not whether deontological theories can take consequences into account, since they plainly can, but exactly how they do so. The main difference between deontology and consequentialism is that while deontology can take account of consequences, consequentialism can take account of nothing else. This is especially clear in the case of utilitarian consequentialism which bids us solely to maximise consequences as determined by a metric (happiness, pleasure, the satisfaction of preferences or whatever).

You focus on Kant. I will do the same.

When Kant says in the Groundwork (4: 423) that no rational agent could will a world in which no-one helped anyone else, since everyone at some time or other 'needs the love and compassion of others', there is an implicit reference to the unacceptable consequences that would result from the operation of a maxim never to help others.

However, Kant does not say that love and compasssion for others should be maximised. Nor does he say that it is the unacceptable consequences that would result from the operation of a maxim never to help others that carry moral significance here. Rather, it is the irrationality of the maxim never to help others that makes it immoral. Conversely, what makes an action moral - i.e. morally good - is that it proceeds from a maxim that is rational in the sense that we can will that the maxim 'should become a universal law'*. Rationality and morality interlock through the concept of a universal law. An action of which we cannot will the maxim should become a universal law is immoral, morally impermissible; an action of which the maxim can be thus universalised is morally good.

Whatever we may make of Kant's view of morality as a kind of irrationality, it is the law-like status (or lack of it) of the maxims that take consequences into account that renders our actions morally good (or morally bad). I can't see that this 'reduces' deontology to consequentialism. If it did, then it would be possible to state Kant's theory entirely in terms of consequences but this can't be done since it would omit the essential reference to the universalisation of maxims as a requirement of rationality.

*For convenience of discussion and reasons of space I omit Kant's other formulations of the categorical imperative.


I. Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, rev. ed., tr. M. Gregor & J. Timmermann, Cambridge: CUP, 2012.

David Wiggins, Twelve Lectures on the Philosophy of Morality, Cambridge, Mass.:Harvard University Press, 2006: §6.4 esp. 149 (on consequences).


Good question.

Let's consider the example of lying.

Lying is not morally correct according to Kant since, in case lying would be a universal maxim ( rule of conduct) then nobody would beleive anybody, and lying would be pointless.

So no liar can consistently acccept lying to become a universal maxim: any liar wants lying to be forbiddden ( as a general rule) but wishes to do an exception for himself.

Of course , in cas lying became a universal maxim, the consequences would not be good. But that is not Kant's point : his point is that it is impossible for a will to choose to lie and at the same time to act according to a universal law. But such a will is not autonomous, and therefore is not morally right.

Briefly: Kant's point is not that the consequences are not good ( so Kant is not a consequentialist in the ordinary sense of the term); his point is that the consequences reveal the failure to respect the moral law (categoric imperative).


As John Rawls, a deontological writer, notes, a moral theory that ignores consequences in general would be crazy. The issue, then, concerns the kind of consequences and the way in which they figure in the theory. Nowadays we focus more on how Kant mentions in the beginning of the second Critique a respondent who objected to Kant using the concept of rightness before defining goodness, and we define deontology vs. teleology ("consequentialism" to some extent) as turning on whether rightness or goodness is defined first.


Portmore's project of "consequentializing moral theories" might be of interest for you, start here: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1468-0114.2007.00280.x


If you pay attention to the categorical imperative, you will see that it is not about the consequences of one's actions.

Simply put, what the categorical imperative is about is the absence of privilege: if you want to grant yourself the right to lie, then every body should also have that right, special pleading is not acceptable.This is what is meant by "make the maxim of your action a universal rule", or in layman / children friendly terms "what if everybody did the same ?"

Now, it's true that this looks like an appeal to consequences, but it is actually not, because "everybody lies" is not a consequence of your one, singular lie by any stretch of the imagination. Everybody is not going to start lying through their teeth because you lied once.

Contrast with consequentialism, which is about the direct, concrete consequences of your action: you shouldn't lie to your accointances because it will break the trust bond between you. But you should lie to a murderer looking for your friend, because there is no trust bond to begin with, and it will have the overwhelmingly good consequence of saving your friend.

Categorical imperative says you should tell the truth to the murderer, because you can't claim the privilege of the right to lie, and can't reasonably envision a world where everyone has this right. I think you can see how those two are totally different approaches.


The main difference between deontology and consequentialism is that consequentialism is inherently emotional while deontology is inherently rational. Some of the reasoning may appear to be the same, but the foundations are different.

In a consequentialist model, the expectation is that if we feel the urge to murder arise in us, we will stop and reflect on the consequences. Are we capable of carrying out the act successfully? Will there be retribution from other individuals or from society? Will inflicting pain and death on another being create guilt or shame within us? Consequentialism boils down to a catalog of our emotional responses to various potential outcomes: whether we feel fear, guilt, or empathy for our victim; whether the emotions that created our urge to murder are outweighed by the emotions that will arise as a consequence of doing the act. It's a deeply personal assessment that is generalized through the idea that most people, most of the time, will control impulsive actions to avoid undesirable consequences.

The deontological model, by contrast, starts at an abstract, depersonalized level. Rather than pitting the raw emotions of our destructive urge against our fears and compassions, deontology ask whether there is a rule guiding this situation that does (or does not) allow for murder. Our emotions are still there, but they are not balanced off against each other; hey are subject to and bounded by a rational construct.

Clearly, yes, we would develop a deontological rule in the context of consequences. But in deontology we would (ostensibly) develop the rule in the cold, hard light of rational analysis and then apply it stringently to all subsequent cases, whereas in consequentialism we would tend to examine the consequences 'on the fly', evaluating our behavior in the heat of the moment.

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